Thursday, August 16, 2012

A More Traditional Pop-Rock Endeavor Yields My Favorite (To Date) Morissette Album With Under Rug Swept!

The Good: Enjoyable and thought-provoking lyrics, Most of the vocals, Some of the instrumentals
The Bad: Music is very conventional, Moments of overproduction
The Basics: Alanis Morissette presents an album that is solidly above average and worthwhile, even if it is less distinctly "Morissette" and more generic pop-rock in its sound.

Those who might have been offended by my panning of two other Alanis Morissette albums are probably not reading this, but I've finally found an Alanis Morissette album I like and can enthusiastically recommend. Some might be wondering why I chose review Morissette's works and there's actually an interesting story behind that. As some might know from my other reviews, I have a small business selling Star Trek cards on-line and at Star Trek conventions and for the past two years, I have made a sojourn out to Las Vegas for the yearly super convention there.

Last year, a young woman walked up to my table and after a few minutes of failing to sell her anything, I noticed her name tag read "Morissette." Looking at the brunette, I commented, "I bet everyone asks you if you're related to Alanis Morissette," to which she responded, "No. But she's my cousin." So, she and I had a nice conversation about the works of Alanis Morissette, which I was largely painfully ignorant of, save loathing the radio hits from Jagged Little Pill (reviewed here!) and enjoying the song Morissette contributed to the soundtrack of Dogma (reviewed here!). We discussed stories like those told on "American Top 40" about Morissette and her band competing for who scored more and it was a pretty wonderful conversation. I was informed that Jagged Little Pill was a gamble of sorts to get Morissette's name out into the marketplace so she was financially able to do albums more like what Morissette truly wanted to do. The young woman said some of Morissette's other albums more truly represented the music Alanis wanted to be creating and she specifically cited either Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (reviewed here!) or Under Rug Swept. I'm hoping it was Under Rug Swept because from the first listen, I knew this was the Alanis Morissette album I would be recommending!

Clocking in at fifty and a half minutes, Under Rug Swept does seem to be a very pure endeavor from Alanis Morissette. Morissette wrote all eleven tracks and provides the only credited vocals on the album. As well, she plays guitars and keyboards and produced the album. In this case, Morissette gets to take the credit for the album and it is credit well deserved. Under Rug Swept is the best album I've heard from Morissette, another key argument that quality does not necessarily generate sales! While this album performed far under her breakthrough Jagged Little Pill, the least impressive track on this album has some aspect to it that is better than the best track on that album.

First of all, Under Rug Swept is a lyrical firestorm for Morissette, focusing primarily on the recurring themes of undercover relationships and not-at-all-closely-veiled songs about a relationship with the divine. In one of my earliest listens, I thought I might write about differentiating between Christian rock and rock and roll that expresses some sense of spirituality, but that seems somehow banal now. While "A Man" (yes, it does seem to be a pun on "Amen") has overt allusions to Christian mythology ("I am a man who has grown from a son / Been crucified by enraged women / . . . I'm often reminded of the fools I'm among"), it is in no way Christian rock, subtly trying to indoctrinate young people with the message that god is cool. Moreover, the most incredible pop-rock endeavor I've heard in some time involving a sense of true spirituality and belief in the unconditional love of the divine (see below) is "You Owe Me Nothing In Return" which has some deeply spiritual insinuations with lines like ". . . You owe me nothing for caring the way that I have / I give you thanks for receiving it's my privilege . . ." Morissette beautifully envisions a concept of a truly all-loving being and that is something that is not presented as either preachy or imposed upon the unbelieving listener.

But lyrically, the album hits its peak when Morissette is singing about the tribulations of relationships on "That Particular Time." Over the cycle of the song, Morissette chronicles the challenges of a relationship of staying, waiting for a partner to make up their mind and finally leaving. The song is truly heartwrenching and wonderful and it contains a powerful level of diction and self-expression with lamentful lines like "I've always wanted for you / What you've wanted for yourself / And yet I wanted to save us high water or hell / [Here's the line!] And I kept on ignoring the ambivalence you felt / And in the meantime I lost myself . . ." ("That Particular Time"). When I panned Jagged Little Pill, I was challenged (justifiably) with the question, "Has there ever been an angry woman's vocal I've liked?" The answer was yes, absolutely; Fiona Apple's seething rage in "Shadowboxer" off Tidal (reviewed here!) blew me away from the first listen. It's not since that first time I heard "Shadowboxer" have I been so caught by a song that expressed such disdain toward a lost love. But where "Shadowboxer" is the anger and defiance, Morissette's "That Particular Time" is the musing lament. She finds the loss and there's not the anger, but there is the sense of loss and Morissette's power on the song is as similar forthrightness in the emotional tenor of the song as Apple's hit. And "That Particular Time" should have been a huge hit. It should have knocked the radio stations over (it was not released as a single).

Lyrically, Under Rug Swept reaches a level of sophistication that almost complete eliminates the thing that initially made me loathe Morissette's works; there are almost no lines that rhyme a word with itself. On "Narcissus" there is one line that does and on "Hands Clean" there are a few lines that insist on rhyming "me" with "me" but outside that, the album is generally better on that front. As a result, it is far less repetitive and in that regard, it holds up much better over repeated listens.

Vocally, Morissette's voice is front and center on almost every track. Any hint of anything outside her range is now gone and she manages to get around some of her more complex lines while actually presenting very decent harmonies. So, as a result, on songs like "Surrendering," Morissette takes some very long lines and right around the point one would suspect she is running out of breath, she begins to infuse more than just a sense of storytelling. After lists, that is when she opens up her range and carries a tune and it works beautifully!

In fact, after the first two tracks, it seems like all of the vocals are wonderful. The album opener "21 things I Want In A Lover" has somewhat banal vocals as the song is mostly a listing song. There is something rather common and predictable in the vocals on that track that does not work as well as some of the others. "Narcissus," the second track, heavily produces Morissette's voice with a phase shift that makes it sound a bit more mechanical than it actually is. The only thing close to being more noisy than musical comes on "So Unsexy," but it never steps over the line.

Conversely, one of the most beautiful vocals Morissette presents is on the somewhat boring final track, "Utopia." The lyrics to the song are somewhat bland and repetitive and the musical accompaniment is one of the most familiar-sounding guitar presentations (it sounds almost like a folk-rock presentation) on the album, but her voice is a beautiful soprano on the track and the effect is impressive for its clarity and simple beauty and the utter undeniability that Morissette can sing!

Indeed, it is often through her vocal presentation that Morissette conveys her meaning. So, for example on "You Owe Me Nothing In Return," Morissette sings with an authoritarian air that changes the connotation from a generic unconditional love to a love from a god figure to its subject. There are moments she lowers her voice and, for lack of a better term, sings down to her audience so that her "voice" becomes clear. She sings her meaning and it's a wonderful use of the medium!

What the album lacks is a sense of musical originality. The guitars and keyboards are very standard pop-rock instrumentals and there are few truly original tunes on the album. In fact, one of the songs utilizes almost an identical-sounding progression as the song "Breakfast At Tiffany's." It's somewhat unnerving to hear on an Alanis Morissette album.

Beyond that, the songs are generally somewhat musically unimaginative with very little in the way of tunes, which forces the musical emphasis to the voice and the attention to the lyrics. The best way I can describe this is that it's virtually impossible for one to imagine any of the songs on this album as musak; something that reconstructed the harmonies in a way that tried to express a musical story without the voice or lyrics.

That is not to call the album atonal at all, I found myself humming "Narcissus," but I quickly discovered that I'd transition from "Narcissus" to "You Owe Me Nothing In Return." The superlative track, "That Particular Time" has a beautiful piano arrangement and it creates the air of musing and loss that makes the song a tear-jerker.

But consider the radio hit from Under Rug Swept, "Hand's Clean;" outside the actual chorus, it's only Morissette's singing that is truly doing anything musical and even that is something of a conversational/list song. Outside the chorus it's almost impossible to come up with a theme and one suspects that if asked to hum the song people would have an easier time singing it!

But this is an album I'm proud to say I enjoyed and I'm happy to be adding to my permanent collection. My recommend is a strong recommend because the best tracks on the album would probably not appear on a "Greatest Hits" album (I have to actually see if Morissette has one yet), which is one of my criteria for albums these days.

The best track is "That Particular Time" and the low point for the album might well be the (sadly) boring "Utopia" which closes up the album. Anyone who likes decent - if slightly mundane - pop-rock will find something to enjoy on Under Rug Swept!

For other Artist Of The Month works, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Any Day Now - Joan Baez
Beginnings - Shania Twain
Femme Fatale - Britney Spears


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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